With his white gloves, broad sash, fringed epaulets, Napoleonic hat and chest full of medals, John F. Scott sure smacked of royalty.
Scott even saluted in his portrait during his reign as Boreas Rex VII — the legendary King of the Winds — at the 1941 St. Paul Winter Carnival.
The 130-year-old winter festival, a blend of civic zeal, goofy pageantry and wind-chilled events currently underway, was only 55 when Scott autographed one of his black and white glossy official photographs: “To Dan J. Nordgren, The Royal Tailor …”
Who was this man behind the costumes, this royal tailor who measured and stitched St. Paul boosters into elaborate costumes with ornate collars and cuffs 75 years ago?
The story starts on the banks of Vättern, Sweden’s second-largest lake, in a town called Stora Aby near Motala in the region of Östergötland.
That’s where Carl Nordgren, 38, worked as a tailor’s apprentice and decided to sail to America in 1893 with his wife, Clara, and their kids.
They settled in Chicago, where one of his sons died at 18. It wasn’t the family’s first bout with grief — three of Carl and Clara’s 10 kids died in infancy in Sweden and 4-year-old Debora died in Chicago.
Carl focused on his work, serving as a cutter and fitter for some of Chicago’s largest tailoring shops. A master of his trade, Carl also taught how to measure and cut clothes for men and women at the Chicago Cutting School.
After 14 years, the Nordgrens moved to St. Paul’s Swede Hollow, a cluster of homes in a ravine on the East Side. Carl spent a few years downtown, working for the tailor shops of Taylor Lee and Friedman Brothers.
In 1908, when his son Dan turned 25, the family launched a partnership — Nordgren & Sons — at 72 E. Fifth St. They moved across the road to 153 E. Fifth St., meeting with “a very fair degree of success … conducting a lucrative business with an outlook for future growth,” according to a 1910 book, “A History of the Swedish-Americans of Minnesota.”
A 1913 city directory places the Nordgren tailor shop on the second floor of the Oppenheim Building on Sixth and Minnesota streets — another heart-of-downtown address.
Dan Nordgren had started his schooling in Sweden, completing his formal education in Chicago. He moved to Holyoke, Mass., for eight years to hone his tailor skills, working as a salesman for a silk, satin and cloth maker.
Ten years after going into business with his dad and brother, Joe, heartache again crushed the family. Dan’s wife, Susanna, died in the 1918 flu epidemic that swept across the country as soldiers returned home from World War I.
Fellow parishioners at the Baptist church on Payne Avenue agreed to take in the widower’s two daughters. When he remarried a few years later, the girls returned. One of them, Susanne, recently turned 100.
“My grandfather was the sweetest, most caring, gentle man and so patient,” said Cheryl Shank, 69, of Blaine — Susanne’s daughter.
“My mother says he never spanked her, just gave her the look and she felt bad for whatever she was doing wrong,” Shank said.
Shank remembers visiting the tailor shop as a girl when Dan Nordgren would raise a finger — signaling to his granddaughter that he was in the midst of a measurement and she must wait quietly.
She also recalls some of his folk remedies: “If you had a sore, you soaked bread in milk and used the bread to cure the infection. And if you were sick, he’d give you burnt cinnamon toast and scalded milk.”
Shank cherishes some old postcards her grandfather sent to her mother from places such as Lake Vermilion and Williston, N.D.
“He’d take measurements and make men’s suits and either mail them back or deliver them,” she said.
He’d always stay close to home, though, during Winter Carnival time. After all, costumes needed sewing and winter needed celebrating.
“He always wanted us to gather as a group and no one in the family ever missed the Winter Carnival events,” said Shank, who keeps the tradition going. She’s attended the carnival every winter since she rode horses in the parades as a child.
Dan Nordgren did escape the joys of winter, moving to near Coral Gables, Fla., in his later days where his granddaughter recalls him fondly feeding pigeons. He ultimately returned to Minnesota, dying at age 90 from pneumonia. He’s buried on St. Paul’s East Side.
For Shank, Daniel Nordgren lives on in another old photograph — this one taken around 1919 when the Royal Tailor would have been in his mid-30s and recently widowed. His lips are tightly drawn, showing no hint of a smile. But his pin-stripped black suit, with flared lapels and a wide breast pocket, fit perfectly.
“I’m sure,” Shank said, “he made it himself.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.